This blog is co-written with my colleague Ashley Leung.
Net Zero Buildings Week 2022, from June 13 to 17, is the perfect time to raise awareness of why the success of the clean energy future will rest on efficient electrified buildings. Net zero buildings eliminate their carbon impact by using clean and efficient technology, such as heat pumps, insulation, and distributed renewable energy. Beyond tackling one of the most carbon intensive sectors of the economy, buildings that use net zero emissions strategies can save consumers money on their energy bills, increase comfort and boost the growth of clean energy jobs. But carbon neutrality and good jobs aren’t the only benefits of net zero buildings – they can also save lives.
With worsening heat waves and more frequent billion-dollar weather disasters, well-designed net zero buildings can also increase passive survivability. That means when the power goes out, your home stays comfortable and safe for longer periods of time. For extreme cold snaps like Winter Storm Uri, passive survivability helped some ride through the deadly power outage caused in large part by natural gas failures, because efficiency investments like robust insulation and efficient windows kept the cold out. Given the disproportionate impact of such disasters on low-income populations, communities of color, and rural areas, incorporating the energy saving strategies of passive survivability and net zero into housing policies could be critical for many during life-threatening events.
Net zero design can also help with resilience during widespread infrastructure disruptions like those caused by Hurricane Maria, a devastating storm that caused the longest power outage in US history. In those conditions, a diesel-powered backup generator can keep the fridge running, but it needs fuel, which means ports and roads must be functional. Plus, widespread use of these diesel generators – even with ultralow sulfur diesel – dramatically worsens air quality and can cause negative health impacts in less than 24 hours, including fatal carbon monoxide poisoning. Recognizing how local resilience and power system decarbonization complement each other, Puerto Rico has committed to a 100% renewable future that includes renewable backup power, bulk power system modernization, and efficient buildings that employ a variety of climate resilience strategies, such as stronger walls that provide better protection from both storms and heat.
The move toward net zero buildings has been advanced by recent announcements promoting federal policies for efficient buildings, encouraging market transformation for better products, and updating building codes that will help states protect their residents. Heat pumps, building retrofits and renewable resources – the subjects of a recent White House announcement – will all play critical roles in meeting 2050 climate and decarbonization goals. Put together into a well-designed Net Zero Building, we can achieve both carbon neutrality and climate resilience.